Continuing a tradition of excellence, Nebraska is Alexander Payne‘s seventh film in 22 years and has all the earmarks of a Payne project. But behind the landmarks that we’ve come to expect from an Alexander Payne film is a script boiling from the page courtesy of Seattle native Bob Nelson. Perfectly blending melancholy drama and high comedy, Nelson writes Nebraska from his life experiences, here seen through the lens of a middle class family trying to rediscover their pride on a Midwest road trip. Using his own family as a diving point for this unassuming host of characters, Nelson has an understanding of Middle America unlike most. His childhood in Seattle was punctured by frequent trips to the dusty plains of Nebraska, giving him an acute portrait of the land’s mysterious ethos. Both an insider and an outsider, he’s able to find the humor in the tragedy and the tragedy in the humor.
I talked with Bob about how he came to work on Nebraska, his recent Independent Spirit Award nomination, what he was doing over at Pixar, and some of his favorite movies, working with Alexander Payne and the creative process. Read what he had to say below:
I found Nebraska deeply, deeply funny and a lot of that came out of this idea of banality as humor. What is it about these unassuming Midwesterns that’s so illusively amusing? .
Bob Nelson: I grew up in the Seattle area but my family’s from the area of Nebraska where we shot. Going back on trips when I was a kid, those uncles and aunts you see in the movie are very similar to my relatives. They were all great people and the thing about them is they were also very funny with a dark sense of very wry humor. I inherited some of that from them and relied on that when I went to Almost Live, this show on Seattle I was on. When I was writing this, especially when I was starting out when I’d never written a screenplay before, I fell back on the comedy segment and came up with most of those first before I added the dramatic scenes. A lot of that came from that Midwest lowkey sense of humor.
This being your first screenwriting experience, what was it like rolling with the punches as various changes were inevitably made to your script? Did you ever feel like someone had taken your baby and was raising it in a hostile environment or did you feel that the people who you handed it over to really foster its growth in the long process as it was changing and growing into a film?
BN: I had an experience that few get to have in Hollywood because the only person in charge of the script after I wrote it was really Alexander Payne, who’s one of our best directors and one of the best writers. He’s even won a couple of Oscars for his screenwriting. To have your script go to someone like that, you usually don’t worry. I think my script was a little softer and he toughened it up and really made it into an Alexander Payne movie, which is something that I’ve always enjoyed watching. I was thrilled and very lucky. He came up with some of the scenes in there. The Mount Rushmore scene is his. He changed the professions of the brothers to give them a little bit of a rivalry and a story arc. That was the kind of thing he did. He also came up with some lines in almost every scene that elevated it. I’m very lucky and I know that will never happen again so I’m enjoying it for now.
Even though it does sound like you had a great first experience, it’s no secret that it took forever. Payne was working on Election back on 1999 when you finished the script. Was that at all disillusioning for you or was it just part and parcel of the system?
BN: Well sometimes it just takes a long time to get movies made. Ten years is longer than most but all of that came down to Alexander and when he was ready to shoot this. He told us in 2003, About Schmidt was about to come out and he was going to shoot Sideways in the fall and Nebraska will not be the other movie after that because I don’t want to do two movies in a row that are roadtrip movies. And he kept his promise. We didn’t know, and he probably didn’t know, that it would take seven years to live up to his commitment but we were the movie after that. He kept his word and all during that time he would reassure us that he was still planning on making Nebraska. That’s really all we needed. There was a worry that he would pick up the script and re-read it and go, “What was I thinking?” and drop out of the project. But he kept telling us, “I just read it again, I’m still onboard” so we didn’t worry too much.
As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve just been nominated for Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards so, first of all congratulations.
BN: Thank you
…and in my humble opinion you’re in a pretty good position to take it home, but I don’t want to jinx you or anything. Is that something that you saw coming or did that take you by surprise?
BN: A lot of names have been bandied about in the last few days and my name was one of them so it’s not a total surprise but still, you never know. It is the Independent Spirit Awards, and we had a small budget by studio standards with 13 million, but they also like to pay attention to movies made for one or two million dollars. So it is great. I think Nebraska ended up with six nominations.
Yeah, right behind 12 Years a Slave with seven.
BN: I didn’t see that coming. That’s great. Bruce and June and Alexander is all great but I’m really thrilled for Will Forte because I thought that he’d been overlooked in this process. These reviews coming out lately are finally catching onto the fact that he played a role that didn’t have a lot of the showiness to it but he played it faithfully and gave us exactly what we needed for David in the story. Let’s talk about the performances a little bit. Is Woody a character based on anyone is particular or more of an amalgamate of worn-out Midwesterns that you’ve seen or researched? BN: Woody started with my Dad. As I wrote it and as it was played, he’s much more cranky than my Dad was but that was all for dramatic purposes. But the kernel of it was my father and some of the things he had gone through. Some things are from real life. My Dad was a mechanic, he did have his air compressor stolen, he served in WWII and he was shot down and didn’t talk about – his kids didn’t know about it for many years. Many things like that started with my Dad. Some of the other characters also didn’t end up being the people they were based on necessarily but just by starting with them and taking it from there helped to shape the characters while giving the movie an authentic feel that people watching could relate to.
How closely did Bruce Dern hem to your original vision of Woody?
BN: Very close. He even kind of looks like my dad. When I was watching it the first time, it was almost too much. He’s the perfect guy to be playing Woody.
When you were writing this, did you have any actors in mind as you were writing the screenplay for Woody, Kate, David, and Ross?
BN: The only one that I had in mind, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking that I could get him if the movie was even made in the first place, was Robert Duvall because he’s one of my favorite actors and he’s one of the actors working who looks the most like my dad. I did kind of imagine him in the role.
So you’re working on various scripts spread over various studios, can you tell me a little more about any of the projects that you’re most excited about right now?
BN: Well I have some at the studios but that really is development hell for many reasons. You work on these things and you rewrite them and you don’t know what stage it’s at or even if it’ll ever get made. I did take a break from that in the last couple years. The first script that I’ve taken out has Joel McHale of Almost Live and he stars in it. That is called The Tribe. We hooked up with the producers of Juno, a company called Mr. Mud, which is John Malkovich’s production company, and right now we’re trying to raise the money to produce that one.
I also saw from the press notes that you spent six months over at Pixar as a writer in residence? Can you talk about what you were doing over there and what projects you might have worked on?
BN: It was a script called Newt. I haven’t really kept in touch with them. I was the second writer on the project and they usually go through a few writers. I don’t know if that will ever get made because I haven’t heard any more about it.
I’ve heard on a number of occasions that being part of Pixar’s creative team is kind of ideal. Was that similar to your experience there or do you have a different opinion?
BN: It’s very supportive. You have a lot of help. When you’re writing a Pixar script, it’s not just you coming up with the ideas, the director is usually also a writer and they have storyboard artists, usually half a dozen at any one time working on it, and they came up with not only visual ideas but story ideas. It really is very intense but it’s fun because you’re working with really good people. You sit around the table and you can work on one scene for a week trying to get it exactly right. Then you storyboard it and show it to all those geniuses at Pixar, the brain trust they call it, and then you go back to the room and sit around while they give their feedback. It’s quite painstaking but that’s why they make good movies. It’s a two year process for each one.
So let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about your own connection to the movies. Can you name a few of your favorite films of all time?
BN: Well there’s quite a few. If you narrow it down, a lot of people in my age really started out with To Kill a Mockingbird, which was adapted by Horton Foote for the screen. He also did Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful and if you watch those movies, you’ll see a lot of Nebraska. So Horton Foote was always an inspiration. I also grew up watching Billy Wilder movies. I love The Apartment, it’s almost perfect in its structure and its mix of comedy and drama. Later, Harold and Maude. What they all have in common is the ability to have a drama with quite a bit of humor. Those kind of movies. I grew up with The Graduate and Dr. Strangelove. Month Python and Woody Allen came into play. In the last ten years, Little Miss Sunshine. Things like that.
So what have been a few favorites of yours this year?
BN: Well of course I liked the new Woody Allen ‘Blue Jasmine’. This year I’ve been so busy that even though I’m at film festivals, I get so busy that I don’t get to see movies. It’s all about publicity. So I haven’t seen a lot. I did see Before Midnight and I’m really looking forward to the new Coen Brothers movie because they’re a big influence on me. I haven’t got to see 12 Years a Slave or Gravity yet but I do want to see those on the big screen rather than screeners. It’s been a great year for movies.
Was there a particular turning point in your career where you said, “I want to write Hollywood movies?” or was it just a natural change?
BN: I always had at the back of my mind that I’d love to write a screen play but I never had the idea that I thought was worthy. I talked to a friend in LA who was working in television and he was trying to help me get a job down there and he said, “Besides writing another Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond, they like to read screenplays as well to see if you can develop characters.” I had this one little kernel of an idea that I’d heard about with people showing up at sweepstakes offices to claim their prize. That actually happens in real life. For a long time, I thought that might make a screenplay but I never figured it out. When he told me that, I finally took the time to sit down and try to figure out a story around that.
How long did it take you to write Nebraska?
BN: I jumped in and wrote 20 quick pages and then realized I didn’t know what I was doing so I had to step back and educate myself about the structure of movies. I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of screenplays. Once I started writing it again, it took a few months and then did a lot of polishing. Before I showed it to anybody, probably a year.
Was Nebraska always the name of it or was it ever called anything else?
BN: It was. I called it Nebraska because I thought people in Hollywood would remember that name over something generic like The Day After Tomorrow or something that they’d forget. There was no other reason really. I couldn’t think of any other title that I thought would stick in people’s minds. But when people think of Nebraska, they think of the state. Alexander Payne the whole time he had it said he was gonna change the title but when it came down to it, he said, “I can’t think of anything better” so we called it Nebraska after all. Originally, he didn’t want to stick it with that label because he also doesn’t necessarily want to be known as the Nebraska director. He went to California and Hawaii to get away from that. He finally just said, “Let’s call it Nebraska.”